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Ian Michael hugs a worker at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Marion on Wednesday. Michael, along with Gino Greganti (left) and Larry Malone (right) are combat veterans and are on a tour of VA facilities where they offer hugs to anyone willing to accept one.

Byron Hetzler, The Southern

MARION – Anyone who came within an arm’s length of Ian Michael at the Marion VA Medical Center on Wednesday, probably got a hug, or two.

It didn’t matter if one was a veteran, an employee or some other stranger, his embrace was around you even before saying hello.

“It was great. I know our employees loved it. I know I did,” Marion VA spokeswoman Beth Lamb said. “I think out of three full hours of the hug exchange, I think there was only one person who said they were in a hurry and didn’t have time to get a hug.”

Michael, whose parents Clif and Karen White live in Marion, has been giving hugs since January.

A Marine veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and discharged in 2004, the 34-year-old from Portland, Oregon, had been exploring other forms of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was incredulous when he came across an article about the benefits of hugs. But he gave it a try, setting up a box to sit on while holding up a sign reading, “Free hugs.”

He got 45 hugs that day, and much more.

“That’s when I was like, I’m going to keep going. The first hug just let me know I had something that was healing me,” Michael said. “This is the most simple way of starting my healing process and beginning to love myself and other people.”

Since then, he has taken his self-funded Human Project: Hugs into 21 states, with his dog, Aura. Eventually, his comrade in the Marines, Gino Greganti joined. The friends had not seen each other for 12 years.

Now they are planning a bike-trek to Washington, D.C. Eventually, they plan to visit all 155 VA hospitals in the country.

Greganti, 39, of Nashville, Tennessee, was experiencing his own PTSD struggles when an emergency room employee offered a hug.

“I just completely emotionally broke down in her arms. It gave me hope. It gave me faith that I could feel love again,” he said.

In a society seemingly awash in violence, fear, intolerance and suspicion, the two call their crusade a “love movement,” doling out hugs to all.

For them, the hugs are an expression of gratitude to veterans for their service but also to bring people closer or at least to bring a smile to their faces even if just for a moment, Michael said.

“It is definitely fueled by the love and, even outside the veteran system, there are people who are struggling and they need to know that they are going to be all right,” Michael said.

Jack Schurman, a Navy veteran from Lake Shelbyville, received three hugs on Wednesday.

“I think it is a great way the veterans can be shown appreciation. I think it should be going statewide,” the 76-year-old Schurman said.

According to Michael, there will be plenty of appreciation to give as he plans to continue the project indefinitely.

Or, as he put it: “As long as hugs exist.”

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Nick Mariano is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Saline, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

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